How Google's China Censorship Would Likely Violate Its Human Rights Commitments

Sunday, 12 August 2018

As I recently reported, Google is planning to launch a censored search engine in China. The search engine has been designed to remove content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, such as information about political opponents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. It would “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases.

Google’s development of the censored search engine has been condemned by US senators and human rights groups and triggered anger inside the company, with many Google employees feeling that the project is a betrayal of Google’s mission to be a force for good in the world and provide open access to information.

Significantly, Google’s development of the search engine calls into question the company’s adherence to ethical principles and human rights codes of conduct that it has previously committed to implement. Below, I've put together a short summary detailing some of the codes of practice and human rights standards that Google’s China censorship would likely violate. (I have asked Google to explain its censorship plans, but so far it has refused to comment.)

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Google is a member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), an organization that seeks to defend digital rights across the world. Companies that join the GNI – like Google – commit to implementing its Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy. The principles make clear that member companies should not engage in the sort of broad censorship that is widespread in China, stating:

Participating companies will respect and work to protect the freedom of expression rights of users when confronted with government demands, laws and regulations to suppress freedom of expression, remove content or otherwise limit access to communications, ideas and information in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.

Google's search engine plan also has privacy and surveillance implications, because companies providing internet services in China have to operate their servers and data centres in the country, which means user data is accessible to Chinese authorities, who have a track record of monitoring and harassing human rights activists and journalists critical of the ruling Communist Party regime. It is unclear how Google proposes moving its data centres to China while protecting the privacy of Chinese users. The GNI principles are clear on this issue:

Participating companies will employ protections with respect to personal information in all countries where they operate in order to work to protect the privacy rights of users.

And:

Participating companies will respect and work to protect the privacy rights of users when confronted with government demands, laws or regulations that compromise privacy in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.

The GNI’s principles incorporate parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the pillars of international human rights law. Operating a censored search engine in accordance with Chinese government demands would seem to clearly contravene Article 19 of the declaration, which states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights advise (emphasis added):

Business enterprises should respect human rights. This means that they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved.

Companies should also, the Guiding Principles say (emphasis added):

Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur; [and] seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.

The UN explains:

Companies can...be complicit in human rights abuses committed by others, including States – for example, if they collude with security forces in violently suppressing protests or provide information on their customers to States that then use it to track down and punish dissidents.

The Association of Computing Machinery is the world’s largest organisation for computing professionals. Many Google employees are ACM members. According to the ACM’s ethical code, goals of technology development should be (emphasis added):

[To] contribute to society and to human well-being, acknowledging that all people are stakeholders in computing. This principle, which concerns the quality of life of all people, affirms an obligation of computing professionals, both individually and collectively, to use their skills for the benefit of society, its members, and the environment surrounding them. This obligation includes promoting fundamental human rights and protecting each individual's right to autonomy.

The ACM's ethical code also says that (emphasis added):

Technologies and practices should be as inclusive and accessible as possible and computing professionals should take action to avoid creating systems or technologies that disenfranchise or oppress people. Failure to design for inclusiveness and accessibility may constitute unfair discrimination.

Earlier this year, there were protests inside Google over a project to help develop artificial intelligence for U.S. military drones. The protests caused Google to cancel the project and release a set of artificial intelligence ethical principles. One of the principles was that Google would not "design or deploy":

Technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.

The artificial intelligence principles have a direct bearing on Google’s plans to launch a censored search engine, because Google’s search technology incorporates artificial intelligence to help provide people better search results. Operating a censored search engine in China in compliance with the Communist Party's censorship demands would self-evidently amount to a violation of — or at least complicity in violations of — "accepted principles of international law and human rights," such as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because it would restrict Chinese citizens' "freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information."

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